Talking Turkey

Dec 3rd, 2006

This time of year, more than any other time, Americans are overwhelmed with the task of making not only turkey – but a better, new and improved from last year bird that will rival all other competitors. In all fairness, Holiday time is the only time we cook a meal of this magnitude. And so, it should be daunting! Friends, family and in-laws gathering around the communal table having anticipated the holiday’s culinary magic, puts pressure on even the most seasoned cooks. Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit but it does seem to me there is a lot of energy spent this time of year on how to cook a better bird. So I offer this friendly discussion to help you in your decision making.

In most of my menu planning, I start by thinking about the big picture first. What flavors am I going for—will it be spicy, herbaceous, or refreshing. This line of thinking helps me create the sides and condiments, and the center of the plate follows. But when working with turkey,that bird gets my full attention up front.

Thinking about last year’s bird, I just want to make this one tastier and juicier!—tastucier! So I am in competition with myself now. To save some time I need to decide which of the myriad of cooking methods available will give me the best shot at ”tastucier!” Quickly I narrow down my choices to brining the bird or oven roasting!

Brining the bird – the purpose of brining is to tenderize meat proteins and add flavor. In the simplest sense, salt is dissolved in water and the meat submerged for a period of time, depending on weight. Sugar or sweeteners like honey or maple syrup may be added along with seasonings to make it more interesting. There are also recipes substituting water with other liquids such as fruit juice, wine or beer. But simply salted water will produce juicier meat. Brined items should be patted dry once finished and then cooked. But cooked how?

Oven-Roasting is a common method for cooking turkey. It is a technique of dry heat cooking at generally higher temperatures for more tender pieces of meat, utilizing small amounts or no fat/oil. This works best on small cuts of meat. Whole roasted turkey is often too large and results in becoming too dry! I think this is where the foil wrapping or “baking a turkey in a bag” probably started. In my experience it is the white meat that is dry from roasting, because by the time the dark meat is done, i.e. no longer raw and is safe to eat, the white goes beyond done. I have had pretty good roasting results when I flip the bird over on its breast for the first half of the cooking. This way all the juice flows into the breast making it less dry—so the hypothesis goes. I think it is more because it takes longer to cook since the breast is buried below the roasting pan. So why not combine the best of both methods?

After brining the bird, simply place it breast down on the roasting rack, and roast uncovered at moderate heat until the bird is in its last hour, at which time you flip it right side up and turn up the heat to brown its chest! Results look great, the dark meat is fully cooked and if I do it right, the breast meat temps just below 165°F while the leg and thighs come in at 175°F—perfect! Adding fat, like olive oil goes a long way to keep the breast meat moist, so after turning it right side up, I also “baste” like crazy with EVOO!